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'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' director, actress

Lee, Yeoh leap into love/action film

Director Ang Lee combines martial-arts action and a love story in his latest, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Lee's previous works include "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility"  

HOLLYWOOD, California (CNN) -- Ang Lee is a respected director, with the Oscar-winning "Sense and Sensibility" (1995), "The Ice Storm" (1997) and "Ride with the Devil" (1999) among his cinematic accomplishments. His latest offering promises to enhance that resume.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a story of love and betrayal centering on the theft of a sword in ancient China. The movie's message is honor and integrity -- its language is Mandarin with English subtitles -- but its action is pure, Hong Kong-style martial arts.

CNN sat down recently with the Taiwan-born Lee and one of the film's stars, the Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh, to talk about martial arts, the yin and yang of filmmaking, and strong women.

Review: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' a gripping, poetic tale
Movie trailer for 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

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CNN: The inclusion of martial arts in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sets this film apart from others you have directed. For those in the West who are not as familiar with the philosophy behind martial arts, what did it mean to have that focus in this film?

Ang Lee: It was a fulfillment of my boyhood dream. I grew up with martial-arts films -- the story telling and the exhilarating type of filmmaking that it brought to the public. It really connects with the Chinese opera of the past, and the philosophy of the inner-strength type of martial art -- the wu tang style such as tai chi -- whose philosophy is much like how we carry our own lives in the East.

... What is really satisfying about making martial-arts films is the fun of it -- the crazy set-up, the ultimate exhibition of the ultimate skill of making movies in the most exciting way. Of course, you don't have to make martial-arts films to be a good filmmaker, but it really did inspire me -- not only in the making of action sequences, but as a filmmaker as a whole. I really got a kick out of it, and it was quite educational for me.

Michelle Yeoh stars as Yu Shu Lien, who's on the hunt for a legendary battle sword
Michelle Yeoh stars as Yu Shu Lien, who's on the hunt for a legendary battle sword  

Michelle Yeoh: There is martial arts in the film, and yet, there is that dramatic side that balances it. It's like seeing the yin and the yang work in perfect harmony.

When I first went into martial arts, I saw the more aggressive side of it, the visual side of it, the very powerful side of it. But that is the exact opposite of the philosophy. It's not about going into war; it's about deflecting it. It's about learning to pacify situations. It's about knowing yourself, looking into yourself. And in this movie, that's what Ang has done so beautifully.

CNN: There's obviously an enormous amount of training that went into those scenes. How did you prepare?

Lee: There was a martial-arts camp set up for about two months, and the actors were taking the basic training.

Yeoh: Three hours in the morning, maybe another two hours in the evening; just working out all the movements. Unfortunately, I had an accident while I was doing the last night of the first action sequence. I tore the (anterior cruciate ligament) in my knee, and there was no option other than surgery. If I didn't have surgery, I wouldn't have been able to run or jump for the next few months. So I had surgery three-and-a-half weeks later I was back on the set.

They literally had to reschedule everything around me and my injury, and push the final action sequence until the last 10 days of the shoot. It was hard; it was really a torment. But you know, I wasn't willing to give up this role, because I had waited a year and a half to work with Ang Lee.

When he (characterized the film as) "Sense and Sensibility" with martial arts, how could I turn that down? Ang was adamant that no way (would I) be replaced. He was waiting for me. When I got back to the set the cast and crew were wonderful. But you know, what you see on-screen -- that's the only chance you get to do it right. And both of us were unwilling to compromise, so it took a much longer time and gritting teeth, but we got through it.

CNN: There is an extraordinary sequence with Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Zi Yi fighting on the tops of bamboo trees. Can you explain how you were technically able to do that?

A scene with Zhang Zi Yi and Michelle Yeoh
A scene with Zhang Zi Yi and Michell Yeoh  

Lee: Those are done by big cranes -- construction cranes 100 feet tall. We had to find a place that had roads to fit those big construction cranes, and then we hang the actors up and mimic the movement of the bamboo. We had scores of people underneath the actors, pulling the cables and mimicking the bamboo movements. It took a lot of tryouts!

CNN: It's unusual in this genre to have women be the focus of a martial-arts film. What did women bring to this movie?

Lee: A new angle. I love strong women, both in life and in drama, and I think for this type of genre, it's a new angle. Also, from where I live -- in a repressed, male-dominant society -- it provides a very refreshing angle to look at the (film) genre and society. It also brings new layers of depth into the story. I think at heart, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is really a romantic story -- a romantic drama with martial arts as its film language. For a woman to use that kind of genre on film is just really charming.

Yeoh: If you watch a lot of his films, his women are always very strong. And I think it's marvelous to have a man, a director, who believes in women that way -- who sees women that way. When we look at every corner, at every office, anywhere we turn we see these characters who have the inner strength, who are gracious, who are noble. But why not on the silver screen?

CNN: What did you learn from making this film?

Lee: As filmmakers, we let our thoughts get in our way so much. It's usually about me, me, me... let me tell the audience what I had in mind, rather than provoke thoughts and emotions from the audience.

It's about the audience. I think I learned that part the most.

Film industry begins talking Oscars
November 22, 2000
Review: Passion served cold in 'The Ice Storm'
October 14, 1997

RELATED SITES: Interview with Crouching Tiger director Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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